Joel Osteen, one of America’s most popular evangelical preachers, appeared in Chicago this past week. The Chicago Tribune featured a front page religion report on the visit in its May 4 edition. For those who do not know, Joel Osteen is the 42 year old pastor of the largest local church in America, the nondenominational Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. He is the son of a famous charismatic minister, who began Lakewood Church after leaving the Southern Baptist Convention many decades ago, and is also the author of best-seller Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. In addition Osteen appears on a national television program that is the highest-rated inspirational show in the country according to Nielsen Media Research.
I have mixed emotions about Christian success stories like that of Joel Osteen. This is a good news-bad news situation. Osteen represents some of the best and worst of popular religion in America. He is a gentle and engaging man with a huge smile. His persona is likeable and his message is positive, in a time when negativity is too prevalent. He uses the Bible in engaging popular ways, speaks simply of the love and power of Christ, and encourages the un-churched to connect with the Christian faith through a vibrant local church. He writes, in his best-selling book: "Let me encourage you to raise your expectations; start seeing yourself receiving good things. Expect the favor of God."
I believe these emphases are very good! But critics of Osteen abound. More often than not they come from the academic Reformed community. In the aforementioned Chicago Tribune article Michael Horton notes that: "Joel Osteen uses the Bible each week like it’s a collection of fortune cookies that can be opened to suit any of your needs or goals in life. The Bible is a story about the redemption of Christ, not a timeless set of principles for success." Sadly, I fear there is a ring of truth in Horton’s words. But the well-known conservative Reformed theologian also adds, "In this religion
In Dr. Horton’s framework one gets the impression that the Bible is about God, period! The Bible’s message, it is often argued by some Lutheran/Reformed critics, has little to do with me. The categories used in making such a criticism come right out of a certain type of systematic theology. The gospel is about redemption, for sure. But Joel Osteen seems to know this from what I can see. He openly speaks of grace, faith and redemption, and all by Christ alone if you listen to him. He is not peddling a message that says, “Try to please God so he will bless you or save you.” The problem I see in Michael Horton’s approach is that redemption is clearly about God, but in the end this redemption is about God saving and blessing me, and countless others with me in community. God loves sinners, plain and simple. This is astounding good news. Indeed, this is really astounding news. Osteen seems to understand this basic message form what I have seen and heard. Osteen can be faulted for sure. For one, his emphasis appears unbalanced.
No serious student of church history would mistake this ministry for the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield. But to draw the stark conclusion that Horton makes simply goes a bit too far to my way of thinking. It fails to admit that the hermeneutic Horton uses is deeply rooted in culture, as well as a very specific tradition, and a narrowly defined way of doing worship and evangelism.
Sadly, I would have drawn similar conclusions to Dr. Horton’s several years ago. While I admire Horton’s zeal, his knowledge and his writing abilities, I have come to think this type of conservative Reformed thought is actually hurting the cause of Christ within broader American evangelicalism. I am increasingly impressed that it keeps needy people from hearing the real concerns all Christians should have for biblical reformation. It also sets us up a class of critics who know who worships the true God and who doesn’t. I not only find this approach lacking in wisdom, it is practically useless in terms of really reforming Christian faith and practice in the dominant Protestant and charismatic movement in this country. We can and must to do better in how we criticize.
Personally, I pray for Joel Osteen and would love to share a meal with him. I would privately share my concerns with him, if he trusted and invited such. I believe I could learn from him how to more positively trust God and remain encouraging in my general outlook. I guess this kind of analysis reveals how I’ve changed over the past decade. Some think my change is for the worse. I will let my friends, and my critics, decide that.
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John Armstrong comments on Joel Osteen [and Michael Horton]
Definitely worth reading……
John, as you well know, I too have serious concerns regarding Joel Osteen’s doctrine, theology, and message. However, through our discussions I have come to agree with you in that; it is a very serious thing indeed to “publicly” speak against a potential brother in Christ. This should remain the central controlling factor for fear that our words, publicly spoken, may only harm the cause of Christ. To do so, makes me fear far more for myself than for any false teacher. Thanks for your wisdom!
I hold great hope in this new tool God has given us for just such a time as this… that we can dialog at the speed of Light… sharpening one another and our understanding of God’s Truth. Further, onlookers can more efficiently and effectively know we are Christ’s disciples… as we love one another. Let our actions validate our understanding of Truth.
Let’s encourage one another — and all the more as we see the Day coming. And importantly, let us promote the regular, frequent, iterative reading & studying of God’s Word, absolute Truth to be taken at face value, and then applying it as a filter as we read articles, blogs, sermons. “Truth will prevail. Truth at the speed of light will prevail at the speed of Light.”
I’ve heard Joel Osteen on TV, and what I hear is simply a gentler and kinder form of name it, claim it. Where is biblical exposition? Where is the gospel? I’m sure he believes the gospel, but you wouldn’t know it from the times I’ve heard him.
I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who talked about worship consisting of fire and light. Michael Horton and the White Horse Inn were instrumental in moving me over to the Reformed side, but as I listened to the program, I sensed more light and less fire and very little love. Guess I’m a Lloyd-Jones Calvinist.
Bottom line, I agree with you re: Horton. But I also agree with Jim Basinger’s comments. Seems like the Joel Osteen “style” is more and more the norm here in the center of the Bible Belt. In the words of that famous theologian, Peggy Lee, “is that all there is?”
So let me get this straight: It’s “a very serious thing indeed to ‘publicly’ speak against Joel Osteen,” but OK for John Armstrong to pillory Horton on his blog? And though Osteen is preaching rank heresy, it’s Horton and his ilk who are “actually hurting the cause of Christ?”
John, I fully agree with your statement that it is very sad to think that you “would have drawn similar conclusions to Dr. Horton’s several years ago.”
What’s sad about it is that you understood what was important back then, but you have turned away from it.
Welcome to the “fire and ice” of blogdom! From just the comments in this thread, I see that you’ve already discovered the “everyone’s a critic” joy of having your writing instantly commented on. But that’s part of why we blog, isn’t it?
I’m a 47-year-old M.Div. student at that seething bastion of heresy known as Westminster Philadelphia (hehe). I’ve been reading your newsletter since you came to speak to us last fall in chapel, and have rejoiced at finding another voice out there of someone who sees the Reformation as something more than a weapon with which to bash heads. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now. If you wish to visit, I’m at http://rmfo-blogs.com/rumorsage .
What exactly is your definition of “rank heresey,” and where do you see this demonstrated in Osteen’s preaching? I’m frequently discouraged and disappointed in what I hear from him, but I’ve yet to hear anything that would qualify as “rank heresey.”
Also, your connection between Horton’s criticism of Osteen and Armstrong’s criticism of Horton is simply inaccurate. Dr. Horton goes to the extent of questioning the personal faith of Osteen and any of his followers: “in this religion God is not worshipped, He is used.” Dr. Armstrong, on the other hand, simply criticizes the words of Horton without getting into speculation about his personal faith or that of his followers.
Armstrong professes belief in the same reformed tradition as Horton does; he simply doesn’t see the need to bash any and every brother who hasn’t embraced that tradition. (Because there are indeed traditions more important than the reformed distinctives; namely, those catholic traditions which all who truly know Christ have in common and which bind us together as His body.)
There is a big difference between saying somebody doesn’t worship God and saying that they are mistaken in their beliefs. And there’s no reason to always be skeptical about the faith of those who don’t necessarily look, talk, think, or act the same way we do.
Greetings! I live about 30 min. from Westminster Phila. and actually have quite a few friends who go there. Right now I’m a student at Phila. Biblical University (done next year. Thank you, Lord!!), and am a member of Calvary Presbyterian (PCA) in Willow Grove.
I just checked out your blog site; looks good! I’ll have to make it a habit to visit regularly.
So who would we rather have giving a message of hope and joy. Depok Chopra? Tony Robbins? I don’t look to Joel for Biblical depth. I get that elsewhere. But I am encouraged in dark places where more Churchy preaching will fail to penetrate. I have read lots of worldly positive thinking books. My concern in them is the lack of ANY biblical relationship. “You can make it on your own, just think positive thoughts.” I know several Catholic friends who attended his meetings Thursday and Friday. They experienced freedom in worship, enthusiasm for Jesus and a positive exhortation (I think that’s still a gift of the Spirit last I looked). I wonder how Jesus would have done it. I think he would approve of our brother Joel. I wish you all would.
In the several times that I listened to Joel, how can the Reformed see anything but warm Pelagianism? It truly is self-help with a few proof-texts. The two “sermons” I heard started off with “positive confession” and if you have spent any time in the Word of Faith Movement, which I unfortunately did, it is consistent with the teachings of the Hagin’s and Copeland’s of the world (“Agony of Deceit” was helpful). Maybe we can pitch in and send him a copy of Dr Chapell’s “Christ-Centered Preaching”?
I stayed at my friends apartment over the weekend and she had a cereal box with Ezekiel 4, I think it was, slapped on the cover to promote their cereal and their particular product as being Biblical. I see Mr Osteen’s use of Scripture in a similar vein. In the end, despite the verse (‘proof-text’) neither is really a Biblical diet.
I have met both Dr Horton and Dr. Armstrong. I can honestly say that Michael Horton was very humble, approachable, and helpful in person. The story doesn’t need to be rehashed, but Horton’s “rebuke”/prayer after a presentation by a popular evangelical preacher totally humbled me and stilled an angry crowed, and was the beginning of changing my contentious attitude. My impression is that he seems strong in his writings, but humble in person.
I can also testify that Dr Armstrong is truly one of the “best” that the Church has to offer. Do I think he cuts some people too much slack at times? Sure. But, like good police work, we should prefer he not shoot first and ask questions last. If John has turned from anything, it is bad police work.
Unfortunately the net provides the opportunity for biting comments with the benefit of anonymity.
In the several times that I listened to Joel, how can the Reformed feel anything but warm Pelagianism? It truly is self-help with a few proof-texts. The several “sermons” I heard started off with “positive confession” and if you have spent any time in the Word of Faith Movement, which I unfortunately did, it is consistent with the teachings of the Hagin’s and Copeland’s of the world (“Agony of Deceit” was helpful). Maybe we can pitch in and send him a copy of Dr Chapell’s “Christ-Centered Preaching”? He has a tremendous influence with my father and several of my friend’s fathers saying they like him.
I stayed at my friends apartment over the weekend and she had a cereal box with Ezekiel 4, I think it was, slapped on the cover to promote their cereal and their particular product as being a Biblical diet. I see Mr Osteen’s use of Scripture in a similar vein. In the end, despite the verse (‘proof-text’) neither is really a Biblical diet.
I have met both Dr. Horton and Dr. Armstrong. I can honestly say that Michael Horton was very humble, approachable, and helpful in person (Beyond Keith Green, he single-handedly shapped my thinking more than anyone or anything bar Scripture). The story doesn’t need to be rehashed, but Horton’s “rebuke”/prayer after a presentation by a popular evangelical preacher totally humbled me and stilled an angry crowed, and was the beginning of changing my contentious attitude. My impression is that he seems strong in his writings, but humble in person.
I can also testify that Dr Armstrong is truly one of the “best” that the Church has at this time. Do I think he cuts some people too much slack at times? Sure. But, like good police work, we should prefer he not shoot first and ask questions last. If John has turned from anything, it is bad police work.
Unfortunately the net provides the opportunity for biting comments with the benefit of anonymity.
Michael Spencer [www.internetmonk.com]is much less optimistic about Joel Osteen. What he has to say is well worth reading. Has anyone heard Osteen say anything about the gospel?
I must confess that I have not heard many of Joel Osteen’s sermons. I remember listening to his father preach on television several years ago. I recently heard on the Lutheran radio station here in St Louis that Mr. Osteen has no theological training, but rather studied broadcasting and marketing. I agree with your comments, John, that Mr. Osteen represents some of the best and the worst in American Evangelicalism. I too like his friendly and positive approach, but I am troubled by his continuance of his father’s legacy of “Word of Faith” teaching, though he seems to have toned it down a bit. Having seen much human tragedy and suffering, including some in my own life, I see a great danger in only presenting a view of God that is “positive” and seems to suggest that God only wants us to be happy. I hope I am not misrepresenting his teaching here. And, I respect Michael Horton, and have learned much from his writing and the Whitehorse Inn radio program. However, having said all of this, I agree that the often critical, harsh, and overly polemical spirit of so many Christian authors and speakers is doing harm to the Church and the cause of Christ. Many of my unsaved co-workers think that all Christians do is criticize and attack each other, or beg for money and promise “blessings”. So on this point I must agree with you John, I think we can learn to confront and expose false or questionable doctrine without necessarily naming the person or ministry we are suspicious of. I also believe that all of us in the Evangelical/Reformed camp need to listen more to those we disagree with, and make more of an honest effort to understand the perspective that the person or ministry we have concerns about are coming from. I have noticed a tendency among Evangelical and Reformed leaders to set up “straw-man” arguments against those they disagree with, rather than making the effort to really understand the beliefs and motives of those they are criticizing.
Interesting! No comments at all on “The Catholic Church Reformed” and so many comments on your gentleness toward Osteen. When you speak of ONE BODY in the generic, you get no response. When you attempt to apply the concept in the concrete, the response overflows. Interesting.
Hahaha… Good point!
Frankly, I found “The Catholic Church Reformed” disturbing, too. But I had less time and more restraint last week, so I didn’t comment.
But seriously, John, when you read Galatians 2, do you find yourself in more in sympathy with Peter, or with Paul?
I read your comments and completely understand your perspective, and your attempt to balance criticism with understanding. I think this where our problems as Christians always surface. We look at others and immediately judge them thru the lenses that we have developed. Our theology has been shaped by our past experiences, whether in church, at work, in the home, or on television. We are programmed by denominational affiliations, by books that we have read, and by our own fallen intellect.
If I knew Mr. Osteen I could comment more intelligently. I have heard him on the television and I have visually looked at him on the same, but I don’t KNOW him, if you get my meaning. When it comes to making judgements about the veracity of ones preaching, or about the intent of ones heart, the conclusions we reach are never “without prejudice”. Try as we might, we are incapable of getting into the skin of another human being and accurately coming to conclusions as to the “why” or “what” of what people say. In the end we are left with little to go on other than the surface of what we have read or listened to. That is why I am at a loss to effectively comment on Mr. Osteen’s ministry. That is also why I cringe at any attempt to portray the Gospel message thru the electronic medium. It just doesn’t get there, no matter how you present it.
I agree with you comments concerning “not knowing” Mr. Osteen’s heart and “not knowing” whether God is worshiped or not at his church. To summarily dismiss a man’s entire message or ministry based on what is seen or heard on television, or even read in books, is judgemental in the worst sense of the word. At the same time to dismiss Osteen’s attempt to glorify God or himself (depending on your viewpoint), are we not also declaring that nobody in his huge “flock” are worshiping God or living lives that glorify God. I understand the concern, and I am also concerned about the deep things, but that is another argument altogether. It seems to me that the best course of action by anyone concerned about Mr. Osteen is to visit him, pray with him, eat a meal with him, and get to know the man. Have a relationship with him, and try to establish what seemed to occupy Jesus’ concerns in John 17 about perfecting unity.
We seem to be more interested in shooting each other, especially in the evangelical movement, than in loving each other. I am NOT advocating turning a deaf ear or closing our eyes to what is clearly sinful and blasphemous. I am simply stating that we tend to “shoot first”, as one of your bloggers stated, and then don’t even ask questions later. It is a trend in the church that is both disturbing and harmful. The world will never pay attention to what we write, or speak about, if we do not love one another from the heart. If I understand what Jesus said in John 17:20-23 that is the goal of our lives. “….that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” It is our unity that will be the statement to this fallen world, not our presentation, or our doctrine, or our denomination, or our books. We emphasize the wrong things.
I am not condemning any books, or denominations, or even critical thinking or analysis, but I am frustrated that we think and act more like the world and its ways rather than Christ. I know this because I have lived wrongly for so many years. I have been judgmental, and even spiteful, towards others who thought diffently than me. It has taken a lot of failure in my life to make me rethink some of my ways. Doctrine is critical (Jesus asked God to sanctify His disciples in truth), but truth outside of relational experience is cold and dead.
Thanks for making me think. And thanks for all your bloggers for making me think. No one take offense at my words, please. I am simply trying to work out my own salvation and experience with Christ and finding that I know less and less about what I thought was so obvious years ago.
Dear fellow Christians,
I really am encouraged by how you are all interacting. There seems to be a great concern for truth and also understanding. I have been practicing more this skill of understanding those who disagree with me when I proclaim the gospel, no matter how harsh. You have shown grace in dealing with others and I hope I could emulate that. I have tried before to respond to blogs (non-Christian) but there seem to be a mean spirit floating around. Anyway, I only listened briefly to Joel Osteen once. I guess I lumped him immediately with word faith teachers since I usually see word faith teachers on TV.
“When you speak of ONE BODY in the generic, you get no response. When you attempt to apply the concept in the concrete, the response overflows. Interesting.”
Isn’t this to be expected though, Doug? When we talk about anything in the generic it is easy to agree or stir little emotion, whether the issue is ‘god’, generically considered, music, justice, love, peace, etc. You immediately stir the pot when you say Allah is an idol and YHWH is the True God. Where the issue of love really comes in is when we are dealing with specifics and concrete individuals and ideas, including our enemies.
Not addressing Dr Horton per se, but one of the biggest problems with many Reformed ‘watch dogs’ is that they seem to delight in the errors of others and their ability to point them out.
“Not addressing Dr Horton per se, but one of the biggest problems with many Reformed ‘watch dogs’ is that they seem to delight in the errors of others and their ability to point them out.”
I must respectfully disagree with your comment Keith. Very few commentators I know would say they feel “delight” in pointing out doctrinal error. In truth, it hurts, it is painful to the heart. These “watch dogs” do so because they are acting upon a selfless concern for others and a concern for the truth.
Also, I am curious, why would watching out for and identifying poor doctrine be “the biggest probelem” of the church? I do not find this listed in the Word as a problem, though I do see it listed as an obligation.
Best of wishes to you Keith.
Yeah, but in a few years you’ll change your mind, write an article about it, invite Osteen to your conferences, and have him, Brian McLaren, and Clark Pinnock over for tea and cookies.
First: I wasn’t addressing Horton per see, see my first post. At that particular conference, I don’t think the teacher or the crowd really showed any concern for the men in error. They men in error were proverbally tarred and feathered with the greatest of ease. Horton, however, demonstrated godliness and humility by requesting prayer. You could sense the rebuke and some murmering at this. I felt like the sharks spotted blood and were ready to feast.
Second: From personal experience, I think I delighted in it, although I knew better to publicly confess that at the time, and I think that many of the men I ran with did as well. I’m in the PCA and I regularly see ministers in good standing slandered without other ministers blinking. I rarely hear prayer and supplication for the supposed errors of these men, but post after post on internet boards, often anonymously, blogs, and in magazines.
Third: I don’t believe “watching out for and identifying poor doctrine be ‘the biggest probelem’ of the church”. It is the seeming delight that these men take in doing it. It’s not wrong to point out errors and I think it necessary. But you may want to step back when your name is often synonomous with grumbling. “Mr Valiant for Truth” sees his position as necessary and his ministry as prophetic, so I don’t expect them to agree with me. They will see me as soft, compromising, and, even worse, barely Reformed.
Grace and Peace, Anne.
Thanks for the insightful comments, Keith, and you too, JA. I too have become increasingly uncomfortable with the careless bashing of church leaders, often on very slight grounds. The delight that some have expressed in seeing “heretical” preachers fall into disgrace is finally beginning to really disgust me. Heretical or not, their names are associated with the name of Jesus, and when they are in disgrace in the world’s eyes it reflects on him. David mourned, “How the mighty men have fallen, Do not, you people, tell it in Gath; do not announce it in the streets of Ashkelon.” We, on the other hand, gladly sing from the rooftops when a theological or pastoral rival is publicly disgraced; in fact we seek every opportunity to set it up. David’s horror was missunderstood by some of his followers and we too must be willing to be missunderstood when we mourn the disgrace that falls on Jesus and his church when Catholic Priests are in court for sexual sins. Instead, Jesus mourns for both those priests and his childish church while it makes jokes from the pulpit about the bad press that the Catholic church is getting. Battling for doctrinal integrity is vital, but the soldiers in this battle must constantly subject themselves to an integrity test also. Are we battling for the glory of the name of Jesus or for our party platforms?
i’ve been reading these comments about Mr. Osteen with great interest. i have my opinions about his theology and presentation but they are only my opinions. this discussion reminds me of something that happened to me a few years ago…
five or so years ago i was in the midst of rebellion against God. i was doing my dead level best to not believe. i wanted to be an atheist. but i decided to take my family to the Cornerstone Festival so my sons could find some positive musical choices in the genres they were starting to explore.
one evening we’re sitting on the hill at main stage, listening to a band i did not particularly like when the singer starts to make some comments. after making some political comments that really turned me off he started talking about thinking and how being a christian does not mean you check your brain at the door. then he said, “the church needs to protect its heretics.if it comes down to the witches and the witch-burners, the church better be on the side of the witches.”i sat there stunned at what he had just said. in that moment God kicked me in the rear and let me begin to realize that He is bigger than my theology or lack thereof, He is bigger than all the denominations and personalities. He helped me to realize that i do not have to have it all tied up in a nice neat package and completley figured out. i mulled all this over the next couple of days and in the van on the way home, i silently prayed, asking for forgiveness for being so stubborn and proud. and i asked God to help me go with Him full-tilt.
i guess i would consider my self ‘evangelical/reformed’ but what i really consider myself is a follower of Jesus Christ. i attend a small Vineyard fellowship in my town. and while some of the things i hear may make me a bit uncomfortable that’s not necessarily a bad thing. and they’ve been pretty accepting and welcoming to this 5 point, infralapsarian, cessationist guy.i guess this is a long way around the barn to say that i have come to understand the most important question is “who is Jesus Christ and what did His death accomplish”?
Doug stated, “Battling for doctrinal integrity is vital, but the soldiers in this battle must constantly subject themselves to an integrity test also. Are we battling for the glory of the name of Jesus or for our party platforms?” Amen and amen.
joel olsteen is a wonderful pastor and I enjoy his words of wisdom his teachings are a great confort to me. What really helps me is the level of teaching and the words that are so real to understand.
Stop hating on Brother Joel. He is doing very well for himself and blessing the lives of many. People are tired of the mean spirited teachings of the uninformed past generations. God is Love, and Brother Joel speaks with Love!!!
I don’t think it’s only the Reformed community who has serious concerns about Joel Osteen’s teachings. The Wesleyans do too. I have problems with the fact Joel rarely (if ever) mentions the cross, heaven, and hell in his sermons.
I’m sorry, but I have to strongly disagree with your defense of Osteen. Quite simply, Michael Horton, and Reformed theology by extension, is light years ahead of what Osteen peddles as “gospel”. This is because the former’s theology is rooted in fantasy whereas the latter is firmly grounded in reality. In no other framework is there better explanatory power concerning sin and the human condition than within that of the Reformed.
It’s only natural that the average citizen of a country with the world’s strongest economy and military would be full of himself. Osteen’s message panders to this mentality. He encourages people to see God as an all-encompassing panacea that will dull their senses to the reality of sinful human existence and bewitch them with illusory positivity and empty promises of perfect health and wealth, with a three car garage, a diversified investment portfolio and rock-hard abs. Perhaps Marx was onto something when he called religion an opiate — and that’s exactly what Osteen’s message is.
Contrast that with the preaching of Horton. Most of his sermons deal with human suffering in the light of God’s sovereign plan and purpose. At the center is Christ’s suffering on the cross, without which none of us could possibly be saved. Listening to him leaves one with no doubt that he is well acquainted with reality. He doesn’t give us any empty promises, either. What he does, say, however, is that those who see themselves for what they truly are have hope in the death and resurrection of Christ. If that is what you call a theology “that has problems of its own”, then I pity you.
As far as American evangelicalism is concerned, perhaps it would be good if it suffered a few setbacks. If by this you mean that which is represented by the likes of Hagee, Robertson and Parsley, who brashly throw their weight around and use the Republican Party as their second pulpit, and who care more about preserving the fetid corpse of cultural Protestantism at the expense of any genuine concern for the lost, then I can think of nothing better than discarding that into the dustbin of history. People like that are far more noxious and “threatening to American Christianity” than Horton. If anything, Reformed theology is our future if we wish to survive.